Dangerous liaisons

AuthorToby Seddon
Published date01 July 2008
Date01 July 2008
Subject MatterArticles
Dangerous liaisons
Personality disorder and the politics of risk
University of Manchester, UK
In July 1999, radical and controversial proposals were put forward by the UK govern-
ment for a new approach to the management of dangerous individuals with severe
personality disorders. The Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder (DSPD)
programme involved service development and research but its most contentious part
was the proposal for new legislation to provide civil and criminal powers for the
detention of DSPD individuals in new specialist high-secure units. The programme
has been viewed by many commentators as evidence that concerns about risk have
become the over-riding driver of contemporary mental health and penal policy and it
has been described as a ‘psychiatric manifestation of the risk society’. In this article, it
is argued that while the DSPD initiative does indeed embody the ascendance of ‘risk
thinking’ in recent years, the idea of risk needs to be broadened out and understood
as a complex, multi-faceted and mobile formation. Crucially, it needs to be viewed in
a more ‘substantively political light’ rather than simply as a technocratic or instru-
mental development.
Key Words
dangerousness • DSPD • personality disorder • preventive detention • risk
In July 1996, on a summer’s afternoon in the heart of rural England, Lin Russell, her
two young daughters and their dog were the victims of a savage hammer attack while
walking home along a country lane after a swimming gala. Only nine-year-old Josie
survived, despite suffering horrific head injuries. As the details emerged in the weeks
that followed the incident, the vicious attack and killings aroused enormous public
shock, anger and disgust.
Two years later, Michael Stone was convicted of the murders of Lin and six-year-old
Megan, somewhat controversially as the evidence against him was widely considered to
be shaky.1Aside from the doubts expressed about the soundness of his conviction, the
Stone case also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the penal and mental health
Copyright © SAGE Publications
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New Delhi and Singapore.
1462-4745; Vol 10(3): 301–317
DOI: 10.1177/1462474508090230
systems in protecting the public. Stone had a long history of violent offending and
mental disturbance and had had numerous contacts with health, social care and criminal
justice agencies over a considerable period of time.2
In February 1999, the then British Home Secretary, Jack Straw, announced in the
House of Commons the Government’s intention to issue a consultation paper on new
proposals to address these concerns about the effectiveness of arrangements for
managing dangerous individuals. In July that year, a paper, Managing dangerous people
with severe personality disorder (Home Office/Department of Health, 1999), was
published. It received a mixed response and some elements proved to be highly contro-
versial. At their heart, and most contentiously, was the proposal to introduce new legis-
lative powers for the detention of dangerous severely personality disordered people in
special units regardless of whether they had committed an offence or not.
The proposed package of new legislation, service development and research – the
Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder (DSPD) programme – has been viewed by
many commentators as evidence for the ascendancy of risk management as the over-
riding priority in this area (e.g. Peay, 2007: 497). The distinctive place of risk within
contemporary penal (Feeley and Simon, 1992; Sparks, 2001a) and mental health policy
(Rose, 1996, 1998; Seddon, 2007), and indeed within politics and government more
generally (Beck, 1992; Garland, 2003; O’Malley, 2004), has been the subject of much
comment and analysis. As David Garland puts it, ‘the idea of risk has come to appear
indispensable for understanding our times’ (2003: 49). For some, the DSPD
programme exemplifies this trend and it has been described as a ‘psychiatric manifes-
tation of the risk society’ (Corbett and Westwood, 2005). In this article, I want to
explore exactly what such an idea might mean. In doing so, I will argue that a much
more nuanced account of risk is essential both for illuminating the significance of the
DSPD initiative and for helping us to understand the distinctive place of risk within
contemporary penal policy and politics. As will be seen in what follows, the notion
that any particular development can be understood as a simple ‘manifestation’ of a
totalizing idea like the ‘risk society’ is distinctly unhelpful and misleading (Rose, 1998:
180; Sparks, 2001a: 162) and suggests a rather thin conception of risk as a ‘unitary or
monolithic technology’ (O’Malley, 2004: 7). Instead, the article will draw, inter alia,
on Sparks’ idea that risk is a ‘mixed discourse – moral, emotive and political as well as
calculative’ (2001a: 169).
Before introducing the details of the DSPD programme, it is worth setting it in some
context, as it is neither entirely novel nor unique to Britain. In broad terms, madness
has been associated with hazard and danger for a very long time (Foucault, 1978, 2006:
147). Specifically, the idea that the mad are potentially dangerous, as well as the converse
notion that the dangerous are very often mentally disturbed, has a long lineage (Rose,
1998: 178). The longevity of this idea should not, however, be confused with any
suggestion that there is a ‘universal’ or ‘timeless’ relationship between madness and
dangerousness. One of the major contributions of Foucault’s history of madness was to
show how what he terms the ‘psychiatrization of criminal danger’ (1978: 3) was a
particular historical development in the early 19th century (see also McCallum, 2001:
149; Foucault, 2006: 524–5).
There has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, an almost equally long line of initiatives and
legislation designed to address this issue. In the British context, for example, historians

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